At a 2008 Remembrance of Kristallnacht program in Cincinnati, Sylvia Samis, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, had the opportunity to play an instrument adorned with a mother of pearl-made Star of David. When she picked it up and put her bow to its strings, she held history in her hands. “I played a Klezmer-type folk song on it, and when I played, it was as if the instrument already knew it. It was an eerie, very unusual situation and a very moving experience for me,” she says.
Samis is a retired assistant concertmaster emeritus of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and current Nashville resident. Ten years later, the violin she played has made its way to Nashville as one of the Violins of Hope, a collection of instruments played by Jews during the Holocaust.
The Violins of Hope exhibition in Nashville, presented by the Nashville Symphony and the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, is the largest of the project’s exhibitions thus far with 26 instruments. Through May 27, the exhibit schedule includes classical concerts, theatrical performances, art exhibits, documentary screenings and an exhibit at the Nashville Public Library Downtown.
Much like the instruments he restored, Amnon Weinstein, a second-generation Israeli violin maker, knows tragedy all too well. Hundreds of his relatives were victims of the World War II genocide. “My father basically grew up without a family, and this was a way for him to do something in memorial for [them]” says Amnon’s son, Avshalom “Avshi” Weinstein. Since 1996, Amnon has collected and restored 66 instruments, each of them with their own story. Many of these instruments were used in concentration camp orchestras organized by the Nazis. Avshi, who has joined in his father’s work, says that he just can’t choose a favorite violin.
“You can’t choose between people’s stories. Who are we to say that this guy’s story is more important than that guy’s or this woman’s? I don’t have a favorite — I think they all have their own message and impact."
Nashville Symphony’s vice president of communications Jonathan Marx says although the stories the instruments tell may be more than 70-years-old, they still resonate today. “No matter how much we learn and read about the Holocaust, the scale and depth of destruction and pain that it wrought is so large that we must continue revisiting this history so that we may continue to learn and understand it,” Marx says.
Because every community is different, Weinstein says every project his family does with the violins is different. “[Nashville’s] orchestra is really very good. To have the chance to do this with an orchestra of this level is a privilege," he says. Nashville’s music-friendly climate has allowed for the instruments to be recorded with the symphony and published on a major record label, a first for the Violins of Hope.
“Even before we knew we would be able to secure dates to have the violins here in Nashville, one of the very first ideas we had was to commission a new orchestral work and to record it. We have also had a long-standing relationship with Naxos, which is the largest classical music record label in the world with the North American headquarters here in Franklin. Naxos has embraced this project and is planning a world-wide release of the recording,” says Steven Brosvik, chief operating officer of the Nashville Symphony.
Aside from opportunities for Nashville residents to create and experience art, Violins of Hope Nashville has opened up a dialogue about social injustice. Mark Freedman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Nashville, believes that the project has been vital to our community, especially in our current political atmosphere.
“This exhibition and this entire project has been an opportunity to bring the community together using the lessons of the Holocaust as the springboard to having deeper conversations about issues related to discrimination and prejudice and how something that was so devastating to the Jewish people can help us turn the corner and look towards a future with more understanding, empathy and compassion,” Freedman says. Samis, who has performed for several of the Nashville events, agrees that the project brings up important conversations. “Our slogan is, ‘Never again’, and yet [instances of racism, bigotry and hatred] happen over and over again. I feel we have to replace the hatred with love and peace,” Samis says.
The endeavor has provided an opportunity for a large, city-wide project, hosted by many organizations including Nashville Public Library, Nashville Ballet, First Center for Visual Arts, and Blair School of Music. Each of Nashville’s Jewish congregations have had at least one program associated with the Violins of Hope.
“It has been a long and detailed process which has been worth every bit of work, every conversation, and every hour along the way. Large scale partnerships like this are not easy, but when you have participation like this project has, there is no question that this should be just the beginning,” Brosvik says.
May 31 through June 2, local audiences will have one last chance to hear these instruments. The Nashville Symphony and Chorus will present Verdi’s Requiem, once performed by the inmates at Theresienstadt concentration camp. Following this performance, the Violins of Hope will be keeping the Weinstein family busy as they say goodbye to Nashville and head to Germany for another exhibition, where they will continue to give voice to the silenced.